Thanks to accommodating lounges, hookahs are hipper than ever
By Tara Nurin
Philly EDGE Correspondent
Sean McLaughlin just doesn’t dig hanging out at McDonald’s. The movies are too expensive, and, really, how often can you hide from the cops while you sneak sips of alcohol in the woods?
So, the college-bound 18-year-old from Abington has found somewhere else to chill: a hookah bar.
“The benches are comfortable, you’re laying back, the lights are dim,” he says. “And (smoking) is something I’m not supposed to be doing, so it also has an allure.”
Inhaling from an exotic smoking pipe in Dresher, Montgomery County, thousands of miles from its origins in the Middle East, may feel subversive for some teens, but for McLaughlin, it’s a perfectly legit – and legal – activity, and it’s one whose popularity is exploding across the region and the globe.
“The hookah is intoxication-free, addiction-free, and it’s relaxing, so people like it,” says Terry Manfaa, owner of Little Marakesh, the BYOB Moroccan restaurant where McLaughlin and dozens of his under-21 buddies congregate to smoke flavored tobacco from a water pipe as often as twice a week.
“They’ll sit down and order one of our juices, a hookah and an appetizer. It’s something for them to do,” Manfaa says.
While mostly teens provide the hookah business at Marakesh, new and established places for smoking hookah within Philadelphia city limits draw a college and 20- to-30-something crowd.
“It’s something you can do with any number of friends, with alcoholic beverages or without. There’s usually good music involved and there’s usually a laid-back, relaxed atmosphere, which is what most people go out to do anyway,” says Scott Jefferson, a 33-year-old professional from Mount Airy.
Jefferson spends many a Thursday night at Byblos in Rittenhouse Square, where use of a hookah and a bowl of flavored tobacco (called shisha) costs $20 and lasts about two or three hours, depending on how many people are smoking.
Patrons of the loud, see-and-be-seen Byblos have had the option to order hookah, or nargile, since the lounge opened last year. But owner George Sawan just added shisha to the menu at sister restaurant Fez two years ago, even though that’s been open since 1990.
“We had a lot of requests,” Sawan says.
Young Americans started to pick up on the idea of relaxing over a hookah about four years ago, according to Brennan Appel of online hookah store SouthSmoke.com, “and now it’s increasing every month, up from maybe 50 documented lounges in the U.S. back then, compared with about 1000 now,” he says.
The first reason he gives for the uptick? The war in Iraq.
“It’s becoming quite a trend in Iraq with the soldiers,” Appel explains. “Then when they come back home, they purchase a hookah and share it with their friends.”
Appel also credits the Internet, the prevalence of Islamic culture in the news and kids of Arab, Turkish, Indian and North African descent who bring hookahs to college. Once people start hitting the pipe at home or in the dorm room, he says, owners of Middle Eastern restaurants begin to offer nargile to their patrons; newspapers cover the opening; word spreads and more hookah lounges open.
In the Philly area, there’s a hookah café for just about every mood.
For example, Little Marakesh is a medium-sized restaurant in a strip mall, with the inside authentically decorated in a Moroccan motif. Belly dancers and musicians show up on weekends to shake it alongside the food and smoke. At Byblos, every Thursday night is Hip-Hop Hookah Night, when the fruit-flavored tobacco is smoked to the beat of a DJ and washed down with cocktails. And Shouk, a friendly new Israeli restaurant off South Street, goes for the “we’re just another fashionable, sophisticated joint near Old City that happens to serve unique food and shisha” vibe.
There are obvious similarities, too. All three places are decked out with pillows and couches that let customers take the “lounge” label literally. Each charges $15 to $20 for shisha and the pipe, and all offer at least a few different kinds of tobacco, from melon to mango to mint.
Of course, despite the complete legality of selling shisha to patrons over 18, you may not immediately think of fruity tobacco when you hear the word “hookah.” It’s true that for the past 500 years, Turks, Arabs and their neighbors have often used the two-foot tall bronze and glass precursor to the bong for smoking hash, and for seemingly almost as long, Americans have stuffed pot in the bowl and puffed away.
Jefferson jokes that “the reason I like going to hookah bars is that I can do legally, and in public, what I normally have to sneak around to do.”
But public hookahs are strictly for tobacco, and not everyone you meet in a hookah bar is going home to get stoned.
“None of my friends smoke weed,” swears McLaughlin. “I don’t see a connection between the two.”
On the other hand, people his parents’ age seem to see the link; the social, relaxing atmosphere of a hookah lounge invites them to inhale a breath reminiscent of their own youth. Manfaa says a lot of his clients are “Baby Boomers who, in the ’70s, did use the bong, smoke the hash and did all that stuff. They no longer do those things. They’re professionals today. And they come to the restaurant and just want to relive the memories of the ’70s, but in a sober, legal, clean manner.”
Where to smoke
S. Limekiln Pike, Dresher
622 S. 6th St., Philadelphia,
114 S. 18th St., Philadelphia